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Sierra Trading Post

Vietnam:  Land of Smiles and Sales


Dodging scooters, bicycles, and an occasional oxcart, I manage to make my way across Hang Gai Street in one piece. My mission? A shop window filled with brightly colored silk lanterns—the only ones I've seen in all of Hanoi after a day and a half of gallery hopping and sightseeing. Before I am even halfway across the street, the shopkeeper and her assistant are waiting in the doorway, smiling, giggling, and waving me in. In English better than my own, the owner tells me she is honored that I've risked life and limb to visit her store. The lanterns, she says, are $10 each, U.S. (the unofficial, preferred currency of Vietnam)—a genuine bargain, given that less ornate ones sell in a San Francisco import shop for around $30 each. And, since I am a special customer, I can have them for an unheard price of $8. Pressing my luck, I counteroffer at $6. She frowns, shakes her head, and tells me she'd lose money on that kind of deal. As I'm taking my pick from a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors—at $8 a pop—the assistant offers me one of the sesame crackers she's been snacking on throughout my visit. "Friendship cookie," she says. "For new friend." After I down my last bite, she smiles coyly and she says, "$5 please." Not sure if she's serious, I reach for my wallet. But the joke's on me when they both start laughing uncontrollably, and, as a goodwill gesture, put the rest of the packet in the shopping bag along with my lanterns. "A free gift for our new friend," says the shopkeeper. "White sesame. Very rare. From the mountains near Sapa. I have them shipped exclusively to me. Eat them and remember your new friends from Hang Gai Street." $64 worth of lanterns, half a packet of rare white sesame cookies, and two new friends later, I'm out the door and back among the cycle and moped traffic of the Hanoi streets.

This encounter is typical of what I found throughout my time in Vietnam—extraordinarily friendly, inquisitive people with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Strangers who gladly go out of their way to help, but aren't ashamed to make a bit of a profit doing so. Case in point, in Hoi An, the self-proclaimed lantern-making capital of Southeast Asia, I discover the same lanterns I bought in Hanoi, but for $1 each. And while browsing around Hanoi's brand new, ultra-modern Noi Bai Airport on my way south to Danang, I notice an entire display of "rare" white sesame cookies—made in Hanoi.

Picutre of busy Hanoi Street
Hanoi Street

In Danang, a seaside area and home to the largest U.S. air and naval bases from the Vietnam War, the pace is slower. After a day of relaxing by the pool at the five-star Furama resort—a foreign-run venture, as are most of the higher-end tourist-related operations in the country—I embark on a 20K bicycle trek along the coastline from Danang to Hoi An. The guide for this trip is a Russian-educated electrical engineer who lived in Moscow up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. He made the switch from electronics to tourism, because, he says, "In Vietnam, what little industry that exists is all manufacturing. Any R&D is done in the U.S. or in Europe. In Vietnam, tourism is the next big industry. It's where the money is. And fortunately, it's something I'm good at." To find out how good, you might ask some of his celebrity clients, which include film and television stars, major league athletes, and high-ranking political figures. But my guide's most rewarding customers are the groups of U.S. veterans who have been returning more and more frequently since the U.S. and Vietnam re-established diplomatic ties in 1995.

Picture of the seaside area, Danang
The seaside area, Danang

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